Guru Deba Prasad Das popularised the form, gave it a structure and prepared a strong line of sishyas

The numerical 54 stuck to him for some reason: He was only 54 when he died, on July 12, (hence this homage and recap of his life, times and contribution), 1986. He has born exactly 54 km from Cuttack, the citadel of Odia culture.

It was in 1954 that he first came to Delhi to showcase his art, which became a forceful style in 1957. He has about 54 direct or indirect students! Meet guru Deba Prasad Das, one of the four pillars of Odissi, who stylised and structured the form, the other three being — Adiguru Pankaj Charan Das, popular guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and youngest guru of the four (and only one still with us ) guru Mayadhar Raut, now 80 plus.

Deba da was born in 1932 and within two years of his birth, his mother died. His father, a police inspector, was rarely home due to nature of his duty. Deba da was brought up by his grandfather, who was attached to a Jatra party, where he played the violin and also could sing and mime. Watching him, Deba da too took to dance. At the age of six, Deba da moved to Puri, since his father remarried. Near his house was an akhada under the charge of Mohan Chandra Mahapatra. Deba da went to akhada everyday, not to learn kushti but sing and dance as akhadas were also an art place. This continued for six years till his father was transferred to Behrampur. His father saw the child’s love for art and left him behind to learn from music director Radha Raman Ray of New Theatres. Deba was only 14 then.

Today, when we think of his art reaching across the world through senior disciples such as Durga Charan Ranbir, Ganga Pradhan, Ramli Ibrahim and Gajendra Panda, his simple beginnings amazes us.

Initial rejection

His first duties in New Theatres were to place a pot of water daily in the green room, to prepare costumes, ornaments and make-up box of senior performers, to pull curtain and so on. His monthly salary was one rupee plus food and one anna per day as pocket allowance. He was not allowed to dance as Ajit Das, the dance director, felt his muscular body was unsuitable for dance. Imagine this was the man who first won for Odissi its acclaim via his prized pupil Indrani Rehman and also was the first to take the form abroad.

Such is the greatness of our first generation gurus, who only knew art, not politics and were genuine kala sevaks.

So Guru Deba da mentored Indrani Rehman, a beauty queen too (represented India at the first Miss Universe) and travelled worldwide only to return home and teach his daughters (Dipanchi, Moorchana and Ragini) and a few chosen boys, from among whom Durga Charan Ranbir has produced maximum serious sishyas who continue the legacy. Others such as Ramli Ibrahim of Malaysia, honoured with a Padma Shri last year, has taken Odissi to new aesthetic heights and Gajendra Panda, the maverick, does dance festivals dedicated to his guru everywhere.

What is less known is that Guru Deba da was also trained in Mayurbhanj Chhau and Kuchipudi. In fact, in tours abroad with Indrani, he often donned a mask of Narasimha and made an entry in Prahlad Charitram. In 1965, he came on deputation to Delhi to serve as Odissi guru at the famed cultural institution, the Bharatiya Kala Kendra. He was a founding-member of the important odissi activist group Jayantika too. This guru wore so many hats effortlessly.

Today, from among all the classical Indian forms, Odissi is the second-most learnt dance style. All of this has happened in just about 54 years or more!

The columnist is a historian and critic, who edits the yearbook attenDance and has authored 45 books .

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